What It’s Like to be an NFL Player

51stshiw5zl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_ (2)If you want to know what it’s like becoming and being an NFL football player then this book is a great start.  The author takes an ethnographic approach by interviewing hundreds of players and spending a great deal of time with others at different levels of the journey.  While it is an academic approach to the topic, the writing is clear, concise, and illuminating.

The author has a few key themes he puts forth to describe the process from high school to the pros.  First, football at all levels he describes as a “totalizing institution.”  That means if you truly aspire to go from one step to the next the player has to be all in and the institutions that control football also end up controlling the players life.

This leads to a second theme which the author calls the sports industrial complex.  At each step of the journey the player’s life is dominated by the game and those that control it.  Big time NCAA football profits greatly on the unpaid backs of all the athletes in profit generating sports and professional football is controlled by a club of billionaires who want to pay the athletes as little as they can get by with.  There is a clear undercurrent that college and NFL athletes are exploited by these respective institutions, especially more marginal players who will never see the multi-millions of the uber gifted athletes.

He also describes the journey as a “tournament” that a player goes through to get to each level from high school to college and then the pros.  Very, very few make it all the way to the pros and the more marginal players that do have to hang on desperately to stay in the game.

The author also touches on masculinity and the fear of admitting weakness, which cause many to ignore injuries or concussions and tough it out at their own detriment.  It is also why players who may be suffering from mental illness may avoid seeking help at their peril.

For those that not only make it through the tournament but have longer than average NFL careers, much of the reason some suffer emotionally and in other ways (not including nagging injuries) is because their entire lives have been consumed and controlled by the game and upon exit there can be a cataclysmic void.  Players who are unprepared emotionally and financially for it face a tough road after they exit the game.

Finally, there is a chapter about racism and how black athletes are disadvantaged (and black coaches more so) in the process.  I won’t go into the arguments he makes here but if you think about the plight of Colin Kaepernick, whether you agree with him or not, that sheds some light on the issue.  It’s a good chapter with some things I totally agree with and some a bit more questionable.

Overall, this was a illuminating look into the journey of the NFL athlete.

Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete

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Bruce Arians Insights on QBs

downloadBruce Arians deserved a better writer than Lars Anderson to discuss what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.  The book is a mess in a lot of ways with side trips in the middle of chapters that don’t necessarily related to the topic at hand.  There is a good book in here somewhere.

With that said, Arians has a lot of important points to make about what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.  Here he profiles those he has worked with most closely: Peyton Manning, Kelly Holcomb, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer.  All are very different quarterbacks but with a lot of the traits Arians looks for in an NFL signal caller.  Unfortunately, a lot of the chapters start meandering into other topics, but nonetheless they are great vignettes about some of the best quarterbacks in the league and one primarily a backup quarterback (Holcomb) who Arians got the most out of.

What is the most important attribute for an NFL quarterback?  First, it’s brains.  To be successful in the NFL a quarterback doesn’t have to be the best athlete on the field, but he probably has to be one of the smartest.  The ability to watch film, read defenses in fast paced live action, and get the ball where it needs to be with accuracy and velocity ultimately is the key.  But football smarts is essential to success regardless of other factors.

You also must have heart.  The willingness to take a big hit to get the ball off, the willingness to play through pain, and the willingness to prepare hard and do what it takes to maximize potential.

You have grit, which Arians defines as “handling success and failure equally”.  You can’t get too up and down over wins and losses but have to compartmentalize and move on to the next game.  If a QB throws an interception or a pick six (an interception returned for a touchdown), the QB can’t get rattled but has to move on to the next play.

And you have to be leader.  An NFL quarterback must be somebody others on the team look up to as an example and want to play with.  And all the traits above set that example.

From athletic point of view obviously an NFL quarterback has to have decent arm strength but it doesn’t have to be a rocket.  Accurate throws to all parts of the field are what set quarterbacks apart.  And the quarterback has to be athletic enough to avoid rush and move around in the pocket, what many call “pocket presence”.  You don’t have to be the best athlete just athletic enough.

As Arians notes, a lot of big armed, athletic quarterbacks have failed in the NFL because they did not posses these traits.

The other interesting part of this book is how some potentially great quarterbacks lack the maturity to play quarterback in the NFL.  Arians was with Baltimore when they scouted Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning as their first NFL draft pick.  Arians walked around both players’ campuses incognito and just asked around about what people thought of them.  Everybody had good things to say about Manning and nothing bad, while nobody had anything but bad things to say about Leaf.  So that ingrained in Arians a clear lack of leadership and we see what happened to Ryan Leaf.

Overall this was an interesting book about NFL quarterbacks, just annoying disjointed and unorganized at times.

The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback

The Real Brett Favre

51zqcudgjnl-_sy346_.jpgJeff Pearlman has written several books that peel the varnish off and gives us a glimpse at the real lives of sports stars.  This book about the life of Brett Favre is no exception.  It reveals the great, the good, the not so good, and the bad.  It’s all here.

This biography of Favre does a great job of filling in his childhood, high school, and college days which many people are not as aware of.  Brett started out as a prankster and living life hard (or to its fullest) and he never really quit.  The book details his rise in the National Football League and offers many anecdotes about his behavior, both good and bad, but also about his unbelievable play on the field.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Brett Favre is his almost Jekyll and Hyde nature.  He can be unbelievably kind to young fans and those in need, but unbelievably cruel to some family members and teammates.  His practical jokes sometimes went a little too far bordering on meanness.  He is a good family man but also a philanderer.  He basically behaved, even as a superstar, like a juvenile with too many hormones and too little brains.   He also became addicted to alcohol and painkillers while in the NFL.

Another interesting aspect of the book is Farve’s father Irv and how he really latched onto Brett’s fame and fortune and started living out his own dreams through his son.  He also was a philanderer and spent a lot of time around the team, in bars, and bragging about who his son was.  I didn’t know much about Irv until this book.

Finally the book of course talks about Favre’s incredible Hall of Fame football career.  Despite the prankster attitude he took football seriously and clearly loved playing the game.  He had one of the best arms in NFL history but his biggest downfall, as the title of the book suggests, was he was a gunslinger.  He often took chances he shouldn’t have so in addition to the many passing records he holds, he also holds the record for most interceptions in a career.  I would argue that Green Bay would have won more than one Super Bowl had Favre not had a tendency to throw interceptions in the playoffs.

The details about his move to the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings after Green Bay Packers got fed up with the uncertainty of whether Brett really would retire or not is well told here.  There was a lot of drama in Green Bay around Brett’s departure and he didn’t help matters by playing into the drama with his coy indecisiveness for a few years.

The only fault I have with the book overall is there really isn’t much that is new here except some of the interviews conducted during the book.  But a lot of what is chronicled here is mostly already known.  The book does a nice job of pulling it all together go and weaving together the narrative of Brett’s life on and off the field.

Good Biography of Lamar Hunt

huntDespite an uninspiring writing style this is a very solid biography of Lamar Hunt.  Better yet, I learned a good deal about Lamar Hunt I didn’t know.  Most readers will recognize Lamar Hunt as one of the found fathers of the American Football League which competed directly with the well-established National Football League.  After a rather successful half decade the Hunt was then instrumental in the merger of the two leagues, creating the modern, NFL we know today.

Lamar Hunt was born not with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but many golden spoons.  His father was a billionaire and Hunt inherited a vast amount of wealth that allowed him to pursue his own dreams and goals with little concern about the financial consequences.  He fell in love with football in college and as an adult desperately wanted to own an NFL team but was spurned by the old guard.  So Hunt did the next best thing, he found a group of like-minded men and created his own football league.

While getting a professional football league up and running and successful against the established, old school NFL was a daunting challenge, Hunt managed to do just that.  And despite eventually having to move his inaugural Dallas franchise to Kansas City, his team and his league thrived.  So much so, that eventually the NFL was compelled to merge with the AFL to avoid escalating player salaries and competition for television viewers.

The most interesting thing about Hunt through all this was his decency and humanity.  Unlike many who didn’t earn but were handed vast amounts of wealth who slid into slovenly habits and narcissism, Hunt was considered by his peers to be very nice, decent man and one who worked hard at his passion – sports.  Even during the intensive rivalry with the NFL’s expansion franchise the Dallas Cowboys, he managed to stay friendly with Dallas’s other billionaire football owner Clint Murchison.

The other amazing thing about Lamar Hunt was the other sports he was passionate about and some he helped get off the ground.  For example he was an original minority owner of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.  He helped create the modern open era tennis by co-founding the World Championship Tennis circuit and is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  Finally, Hunt is instrumental in first bringing professional soccer to the United States as an owner of a Dallas professional soccer franchise, despite it rankling owners in the NFL.  While the league eventually collapsed, it was the precursor to today’s Major League Soccer.

The story of Hunt and the AFL-NFL merger is well told in other places but this biography also does that seminal event justice, while expanding ones knowledge of just how instrumental Hunt was in the sports world in general.

While the writing lacks a lot to be desired, the content is worth the effort.

Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports

The Galloping Ghost: A Well Done Biography of Harold “Red” Grange

GrangeThis is a very well done biography of Harold “Red” Grange, a seminal figure in the history of professional football. He literally burst onto the scene has a halfback at the University of Illinois and is considered one of the greatest college football players of all time. The highlight of his college career was scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Michigan in 1924, which made his name nearly a household word. By the time his college career was over his name recognition in the United States was, for that era, like a Michael Jordan. His college career spanned from 1923 to 1925 and in those days it was the sportswriters and newspapers that were preeminent in conveying the sights and sounds of sports, which was not without a bit of hyperbole. Sportswriters like Grantland Rice did much to make Grange into a larger than life figure, and another sportswriter dubbed him “The Galloping Ghost.”

Grange is likely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as much for what he did to bring recognition to pro football as he is for what he did on the field. In the 1920’s college football was very popular and seen as an honorable and “amateur” endeavor. Pro football was seen as grimy, violent, and filled with ne’er do wells and ruffians. Many did not want Grange to sully his name and reputation by playing professional football. But with what might be the first real football agent, C.C. Pyle and Chicago Bears owner George Halas, Grange signed a hefty contract to play with the Chicago Bears in 1925.

Grange brought immediate legitimacy to pro football and was a major draw at the gate. One of the most ridiculous although lucrative activities was a 19 game barnstorming tour in 67 days. That is on average a game every 3.5 days! Playing such a violent and physically demanding game on a schedule like that borders on insanity but Halas and C.C. Pyle were thinking about the gate receipts not the health of the players.

After a contract dispute C.C. Pyle and Grange formed their own league and Grange’s team was the New York Yankees. That lasted all of one year. And unfortunately in 1927 Grange suffered a serious knee injury, and of course back then sports medicine was crude. From the accounts in the book it may have even been an ACL tear but after sitting out a year Grange went back to the Bears and played through the 1934 season. But he doesn’t appear to be the same player as he was before and often played only a few downs in games just to appease crowds who came to see him play.

Grange’s was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 1963.

After his career Grange did a variety of jobs including speaking engagements and sports broadcasting.

There are two very interesting aspects of this biography that the author does a good job of exploring.

One is the impact that Grange’s name recognition and image had on the reputation of pro football. It was very significant. The author reminds us just how famous Grange was in the 1920’s because of his football exploits. He was able to parlay that into a lot of endorsements as well. He was one of the most widely recognized sports figures of his era.

Another is C.C. Pyle. He clearly was a bit of a con man but played the role of Grange’s agent well and seems to have treated Grange fairly in their business dealings. It would appear that he is the first player agent in pro football but I am entirely sure of that. At the very least he was the first prominent one.

Overall this was a well done and very interesting biography of an iconic figure in professional football.

The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

 

Review of Bill Parcells: A Football Life

parcellsThis “autobiography” of Bill Parcells is certainly fascinating, as any biography of such a character should be. Character is a good word to describe Parcells, as he is a character. Arrogant, sarcastic, demanding, profane, psychologist, restless and successful are just a few of the adjectives that describe one of the best professional football coaches of the modern era.

I have always been fascinated by people who make sports their life calling, especially one as demanding as being the head coach or executive of a National Football League team. Parcells has been one of the best with a unique and not always likable style.

This biography does a great job of providing the background of Parcells’s growing up and how being a self-described Jersey guy has colored his personality. His dedication to football and being a football coach is evident in his hopping from job to job at small schools in the college ranks, constantly moving his family and working for little pay hoping for bigger and better opportunities. The demands of his job and the constant moving eventually cost him his marriage, which unfortunately is not that uncommon for coaches. Parcells’s life has certainly been defined by football.

Bill Parcels really made his stamp on football immortality as the head coach of the New York Giants whom he lead from a bad team to two time Super Bowl champion grounded in the philosophy of a strong defense and solid running game. His time with the Giants was not always without its stresses. Parcells was furious when he found out General Manager George Young was essentially looking to get rid of him after his first season, one which saw the team go 3-12. Between the lines it appears Parcells never really got over that.

After eight seasons with the New York Giants and two Super Bowl wins, Parcells stepped down as the head coach. While it is never made clear why he left the Giants, only saying “it was time” he did have a heart condition and it is also clear that Tim Mara selling his share of his team to Robert Tish, ushering in a new ownership group, likely had something to do with this move as well. More than once in the book Parcells exclaims that a change in ownership is a good reason for a coach to leave the organization.

After heart bypass surgery and few years away from coaching, Bill Parcells became the head coach of the New England Patriots.
I am a diehard New England Patriots fan and many of my fellow compatriots do not like Parcells because he left the Patriots in a lurch before Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. This was a pretty terrible thing for Parcells to do because he had been secretly working out a deal to leave for the hated New York Jets, which made him, in some ways, a lame duck head coach going into the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl. It was not quite as bad as the suspension and then reinstatement for the playoffs of New England head coach Chuck Fairbanks in the 1978 season where the team lost to the Houston Oilers in the divisional round lead by a coach on his way out the door and no respect among the players. But it was not an entirely classy move either.

But Bill Parcells did make one key decision that turned around the Patriots franchise and lead us to the Super Bowl. Had he made a different decision, who knows what the future would have held for the franchise. In the 1993 draft there were two quarterbacks that were going to go number one and number two: Drew Bledsoe of Washington State and Rick Mirer of Notre Dame. Parcells chose Bledsoe who went on to become a solid starter and part of the resurgence of a moribund franchise. Rick Mirer, while winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Seattle Seahawks, quickly became a washed up bust. Parcells made the right move. And let’s not forget that Parcells took a terrible team and through the draft, free agent signings, and his leadership turned it into a playoff contender.

And then there is the ownership situation. Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots in 1994 and Parcells was part of the previous regime. It appears that Parcells did not give Kraft the respect he deserved as owner, as mostly what Parcells wanted from ownership would appear to be to just stay out of his way. Kraft, on the other hand, was probably a bit too meddlesome in football operations, which is highlighted by the Patriots selecting Ohio State wider receiver Terry Glenn in the first round of the 1996 draft, against the wishes of Parcells. This is probably the beginning of the end of Parcells’s stay in New England.

Bill Parcells went on to turnaround the Jets organization and make them into a contender and fostering a heated rivalry with the New England Patriots who got several New York Jets’ draft choices because of the way Parcells left the Patriots. After leaving coaching and being an executive with the Jets, Parcells again stepped down.

But like The Terminator, he’d be back, surprisingly with one of the most meddlesome owners in the league, Jerry Jones. He then turned around another ailing franchise, although not with quite the dramatic impact he had in his previous stints. But he did put the Cowboys on the right track after a four year tenure there.

Parcells’s final act was as the head of football operations for the Miami Dolphins where he tried to piece back the organization through hiring the right coaches and the draft. He didn’t have quite the success with the Dolphin’s as he did at other stops but they were certainly in a better place when he left than when he came. The wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Next I want to turn to a few of the major themes of the book that interest me the most.

Does Bill Parcells deserve to be in the National Football League Hall of Fame?

There were several detractors to Parcells Hall of Fame candidacy. The reasons included his less than spectacular overall record of 172-130-1. His job hopping didn’t help his candidacy as some wanted to make sure if elected he didn’t go back into coaching and possibly harm is legacy. He didn’t stay with any one team long enough, except maybe the Giants, to truly establish a dominant legacy with any one team. The most ridiculous argument is that Bill Belichick was with him during his most successful years.

Bill Parcells without a doubt belongs in the Hall of Fame. You can’t even think about the history of the NFL from 1983 to today without Bill Parcells’s being a major part of the story. He won two Super Bowls. And he turned around the fates of four franchises.

He also left an extensive coaching tree include Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Sean Payton, all Super Bowl winners and many others who have been coaches in the professional and college ranks.

Relationship with Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick was the contractual heir to the New York Jets head coaching job when Bill Parcells stepped down in 1999. But in one of the most bizarre resignation speeches ever, Belichick jilted Parcells and the Jets to take the head coaching job with, of all teams, the New England Patriots. This lead to falling out over what heretofore had seemed to be an extremely strong bond as Parcells brought Belichick along with him everywhere he went and they had great success together. Parcells take on it was “a deal is a deal.”

Here I think Parcells is being a bit disingenuous and inconsistent. First, the way he left New England was a bit classes and he two broke his contractual obligations which lead to a brokering of a deal giving New England several of the Jets draft choices. Second, Parcells himself said that a change in ownership is a good reason for a head coach to be concerned and leave a job and the Jets had just been sold to a new owner.
I suspect, although this has never been stated, that Belichick also wanted to be his own man and since Parcells was set to be head of football operations and still his boss, and he didn’t want Big Bill constantly looking over his shoulder at his coaching decisions and being meddlesome.
I think Parcells feelings were just hurt. It was good to see that they have mended their fences since then.

Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft

Another difficult relationship that has since seemed to be repaired is the bad relationship Kraft had with Parcells when he took over the ownership of the New England Patriots. Parcells’s famous line “if they want you to cook the dinner, they ought to let you buy some of the groceries” is a classic. Of course a coach wants a strong say over the draft and other roster acquisitions and Kraft not handing more of the personnel responsibilities over to Parcells was a mistake. Parcells, on the other hand, did not communicate well with Kraft and presumably left in him in the dark and even had intermediaries speaking on his behalf. This is not a healthy way to run a football team. Both made mistakes. This is another relationship I am happy to see, if not fully patched up, at least each acknowledging mistakes were made and both regretting how the parting of Parcells from the team came about.

Conclusion

The one quibble I have with this book is the prose is not always as clear as it could be and sometimes I had to read something twice because of it. It was also written in the third person, which was a bit odd, but I eventually got used to it. Parcells voice is loud and clear in the book, nevertheless.

Overall I would heartily recommend the book to any NFL fan as it tells the “Football Life” of one of the most interesting and important coaches in the history of the game.

Parcells: A Football Life

 

Review of Bill Polian’s The Game Plan

untitledBill Polian’s The Game Plan is a mixed bag for this reader. Much of what he talks about in the book is either common sense or a bit dry, especially when he goes through the process of hiring a coach or choosing Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf as the number one pick in the draft. Even the talent evaluation sections seem a bit mundane.

Where the book is most interesting and engaging is where he talks about his stints with the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and his time building the Indianapolis Colts. His chapter on finally convincing Jim Kelly to sign and play in Buffalo and the construction of a team that went to the Super Bowl four times in a row (and lost) was quite interesting and Polian clearly has a soft spot in his heart for his tenure with the Bills and coach Marv Levy.

Equally engaging is when he talks about his time with the Colts and clearly points out the implications of the salary cap on a team’s construction. There is only so much money to go around so once the Colts decided to build a superior offense around Payton Manning, meaning you also had to spend more money on that side of the ball, the salary cap hampered what they were able to do on the defensive side of the ball. Tony Dungy was the right coach for the Colts because his defensive scheme allowed for players who didn’t need to be superstars. But nonetheless, the history of that team shows you that the defense was always we weak link with the exception of a few outstanding players.

Being an avid NFL fan I am glad I read the book but only found parts of it particularly interesting – those parts being the personal stories about the personalities and teams he was involved with.

The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team